Last week was the American Library Association’s annual “Banned Books Week.” Touted by the national organization as “celebrating the freedom to read,” the 31-year-old event’s name is a bit hyperbolic – few books are actually “banned” in the United States these days. And those that are usually don’t stay banned for very long.
This year’s event garnered tremendous publicity thanks to a hapless school board in Randolph County, N.C., which voted on Sept. 16 to pull Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” from school library shelves. A parent complained about the novel’s language and tone, which tells a bleak tale of a black man who feels “invisible” in a white world.
“A hard read,” said one board member. “I find no literary value,” said another.
The ban lasted a little more than a week before a national outcry and widespread ridicule forced the board to backpedal. Americans really don’t like to ban books.
This week, my wife and I decided to get a jump on next year’s “Banned Books Week” by challenging a book at our son’s middle school.
Each year, the American Library Association releases a list of the 10 most “challenged” titles. Although often called the “banned books list,” these books aren’t banned exactly.
Rather, they’re books that (mostly) irate grownups complain children (mostly) shouldn’t be reading for all sorts of reasons: too much foul language, sex, violence and religion seem to be the most common gripes.
I really don’t want to get on the library association’s bad side, so our challenge is a relatively benign one. Our complaint – such as it is – concerns a book called “Dragonwings,” by Newberry Award-winner Laurence Yep about the Chinese American experience in San Francisco around the turn of the 20th century. My son was reading it for his school district’s “Battle of the Books” competition.
“Dragonwings” first appeared in 1975, so it has a history of challenges. Most of the complaints have had to do with the book’s references to demons, reincarnation and Taoism.
Our challenge was a little different: My wife would have liked a heads up before having to define what prostitution is. Because trying to explain to an 11-year-old what happens when Chinese girls are kidnapped and sold to brothels without lying outright can be tricky. We were hoping to hold off on that one for another couple of years at least.
The troubling paragraph isn’t explicit. It appears as a piece of historical background. But as my wife put it the other day, “Don’t we have enough to deal with without the school making more trouble?”
My wife phoned the school librarian, who helpfully sent home a couple of documents for us to review. The first was an official form requesting a review of “questioned material” and asking us to detail our concerns about the book.
“What action would you like the school to take regarding this matter?” Options include: “Not assign it to my child,” “re-evaluate it,” “withdraw it from all students,” “place on restricted bookshelf” (which would require written parental permission to check out, “replace with” (fill in the blank); and “other.”
I checked “other.” Frankly, when it comes to the school’s reading lists, we’d just like a little fair warning, that’s all.
The second document was an information sheet aimed at discouraging us from filling out the first, thick with quotations from John Stuart Mill and Supreme Court Justices William Brennan and William O. Douglas on the dangers of restricting free speech and free thought.
It’s an unsubtle piece of propaganda, but no doubt an effective one. And I wouldn’t quarrel with much of it. As the school district’s head librarian told me, in her 14 years on the job, she’s had only four challenges. “We want kids to have access to a wide range of material,” she said, adding, “You have the right as a parent to censor what your children read.”
She’s right. We try to be careful, and books are the least of our worries. The popular culture writ large isn’t much interested in letting kids be kids – at least not for very long.
That North Carolina parent may have been wrong and misguided to complain about Ellison’s great novel, but it isn’t hard to understand why she did it.
Parents desperately want to believe they can control the pictures their children see, and the words and lyrics they hear, especially in school. But complaining about decades-old novels seems vain when your kid’s classmates are twerking on the playground and “Blurred Lines” is blaring on stores’ stereos.
“Push back against the age as hard as it pushes against you,” wrote Flannery O’Connor – another writer whose work has fallen afoul of would-be censors now and then. Our age is unrelenting. Pushing back is exhausting. Some days it feels like our job is to build levees of sand against a hurricane of filth.
Ben Boychuk is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.